No, U.S. 1 was not trying to make a statement when we put Gennady Spirin’s portrait of a Victorian Santa Claus on the cover of last week’s issue. We merely chose a beautiful image to represent "old-fashioned" holidays. But a 20-something who grew up in Bridgeton and now lives in West Windsor E-mailed to thank us for that choice:

"For whatever sentimental reason, this year I have felt the most that the Christmas I knew as a child has become less and less acknowledged in the Central New Jersey area."

"I have always respected the choices of others and felt blessed that I have the freedom to have my own beliefs. But so many companies and organizations use the word ‘holiday’ now, and gosh forbid anyone should say ‘Merry Christmas,’ have a picture of Santa, or even display a manger scene. I thank you deeply for acknowledging Santa and keeping the spirit of Christmas alive."

Santa is becoming a sensitive issue. Although not an overtly religious symbol, the popularity of Santa Claus has been denounced by religious people of all faiths, even those who celebrate December 25. Now even the secular humanists are launching a protest against Santa’s December 24th global journey. On December 18 the Bridgewater-based New Jersey Humanist Network will celebrate HumanLight, a new humanist-oriented winter holiday, by gathering at Raritan Valley College’s planetarium for a private laser star show, followed by a luncheon and magic show ( or call 732-658-6440.)

"Humanists do not believe in miracle stories or holidays based on supernatural concepts," says a press release, which refers to "the possible isolation that may be felt by those who do not celebrate the December religious holidays."

We had a glimpse of what it must be like to live as a member of a minority religion from a Hindu college student who plans to work at an orphanage in India for a year after she graduates. It will be the equivalent of a stint in the Peace Corps, she says, but she also mentions that she craves the experience of living in a country that celebrates the Hindu holidays.

Don’t Hindus celebrate Diwali in New Jersey, we asked? Yes, but it’s not the same, she said. In India, everyone decorates for Diwali like Americans do for Christmas. Okay, now we understand.

Our community is indeed much more varied than it was 30 years ago – or even 10 years ago. And "Happy Holidays" can be a warm-hearted acknowledgment of that diversity or a cynical copout. But around the U.S. 1 office, we really mean it when we talk about happy holidays, because we are working on the 2006 wall calendar that will be delivered on December 21. On the day this is written, this issue of the newspaper goes to one printer and our calendar goes to another.

So we are knee deep in holidays, the religious and the profane. We considered 2,500 dates and used about 900 of them. Lots of them are holy days, holidays, or some derivation. Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, Easter, Passover, Kwanza, Diwali, Ramadan, the Hogmanay bonfire, Apple Wassailing Day. You name it, we have it, and its date. Happy Holidays!

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